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Authors: Marilyn Todd

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths

Second Act (5 page)

BOOK: Second Act
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‘Finally, madam—’ with a sweep of his little fat hand, Caspar ushered forward the female members of the troupe ‘—please welcome my splendiferous harem of beauties.’

Good grief. Claudia had no idea that fat could be broken down into so many different categories. There was solid fat, wobbly fat, provocative fat—this latter category being Jemima of the bright red hair and unfettered tongue, who seemed perfectly oblivious to the amount of bosom she was showing, goose pimples and all. Then there was fat that tried to hide it, fat that tried to enhance its beauty with cosmetics and, finally, there was fat that simply didn’t give a damn.

Behind them, the men were admiring the acoustics more than the decor and had already launched into their stereotyped roles. Jupiter was courting an effeminate Venus, while the leering Satyr prowled behind him, playing his imaginary pan pipes. The Poet, on bended knee, was wooing his Lover into adultery with verse. But it was the Buffoon who stole the scene, launching alternately into monkey walks, then pretending to trip over invisible obstacles before being chased by his own shaven-headed shadow.

‘Renata,’ Caspar said, having to raise his voice over the babble as he kissed the hand of the woman whose face was a stiff mask of white chalk and rouge. ‘Our musician and our rock. She plays flute for Felix’s mime, but clever girl that she is, Renata also plays the pan pipes and tuba.’

‘Don’t forget the twin pipes, the horn and the cornet,’ Renata chided.

‘The way she carries on,’ Wobbly Fat snapped, ‘you’d think she played all six at once.’

‘Ah, the lovely Adah,’ Caspar said, patting Wobbly Fat on her ample bottom. ‘Then we have the plumptious Fenja.’

Tall as a legionary, solid as a dam, fair of hair and blue of eye, the girl had to be of Nordic origin.

‘You ferry kind, inviting us to stay wid you.’

Claudia thought of those quaint Nordic customs that so endeared them to the Roman populace. Punishing homosexuality by pressing the offender under a stone until dead. Public flogging for adulterous wives. Criminals executed by being pegged down in a peat bog.

‘You hef luffly villa,’ Fenja said, cracking her knuckles. ‘Much good taste.’

Claudia had a feeling that when Fenja talked of moving house, she meant picking it up and physically carting it off on her back.

‘Jemima, of course, you already know.’ Caspar’s eyeballs nearly disappeared down the redhead’s magnificent cleavage.

‘Everyone knows Jem,’ Adah put in cattily. ‘Leastways, half the men in Rome do.’

‘Bollocks,’ Jemima said, winking at Claudia. ‘It’s less than a third, yer jealous cow.’

To prevent a catfight, Caspar thrust forward a girl whose frizzy hair was escaping from her hairpins to give her the appearance of a startled hedgehog. ‘Hermione.’

‘It’th tho kind of you to thponthor uth,’ Hermione lisped. ‘We won’t be no trouble.’

Claudia sincerely hoped not. She had enough to contend with, thanks to Butico, Moschus and the Security Police.

‘And last, but never least,’ Caspar gushed, ‘the lovely Erinna.’

If Hermione was the one who tried to hide her shape, Erinna was the girl who didn’t give a damn. Unlike the others, who were slaves to fashion with their cheap, but trendy pleated gowns and bright, embroidered hems, Erinna’s long, chestnut hair wasn’t contorted into fashionable styles with hot tongs. She’d merely twisted it into a dark, glossy bun.

Were there really only six of them, Claudia wondered, counting the splendiferous harem for the umpteenth time? And would they
ever
fit into just two rooms?

‘Fine house this, damn fine,’ Caspar murmured, accepting a goblet of wine from his hostess. ‘I had hoped, you know, that as a producer and director of some years’ standing, I would have owned a residence such as this myself by now, but alas, alas. Certain ill-advised investments…’

‘I had some like that,’ Claudia replied. Indeed, a couple of them were still running, she believed.

Across the atrium, the Buffoon was
mimi
cking Leonides behind his back, mirroring the steward’s every action and exaggerating it. The more the servants laughed, the more he piled on the comedy, adding a mincing walk as he switched to mimicking Chiselled Cheekbones, then snatching a kiss from an outraged, macho Ion.

‘I don’t suppose,’ Caspar said, fingering an ivory statuette, ‘there’s a vacancy for a husband in this magnificent establishment?’

‘Only a rich one,’ Claudia said. ‘And besides. You’re already married.’

‘A technicality, madam, which I assure you would be no impediment, none at all, to any nuptials, should you consent.’ He took a long hard glug at the wine. ‘Truth to tell, dear lady, there have been three, possibly four, such technicalities during the course of Caspar’s travels.’

‘You don’t remember how many women you’ve married?’

‘Madam!’ he protested. ‘I recall with the greatest sentiment and clarity the four charming creatures to whom I plighted my troth. There’s merely a little question mark over the legality of a certain ceremony in Carthage, an issue which was never entirely resolved. Still.’ He brightened visibly. ‘One less divorce to worry about, what.’

Claudia sighed contentedly as she retreated to her office. Oh, yes, Caspar’s latest Spectacular was going to put a lot of business her way. An
awful
lot. She took a sheet of parchment off the pile, dipped her stylus in the inkwell and began to draft a list of invitees. How could the glitterati fail to be impressed by such a comedy, when half of it did not need any scripting?

Six

Seven hills of Rome. Each very different from its neighbour. The Aventine, for instance, rising from the wharves, had covered its slopes with warehouses and was pretty much the plebeian quarter of the city. The Esquiline, on the other hand, with its cleaner, clearer air, abounded with parks and public gardens and was where rich patricians chose to site their homes. The Capitol, of course, precipitous and once completely forested, stood testament to the Empire’s wealth and superiority, which was now symbolized by soaring temples which dominated the skyline.

But it was the Palatine Hill where the seat of power lay. It was here, on the Palatine, that the most influential of all Rome’s temples had been built, the Temple of Apollo. Commissioned by Augustus to commemorate his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and constructed of solid marble from the quarries of Numidia, the temple housed the great Greek and Latin libraries, as well as the ancient Sybilline prophecies, and was the wonder of its day.

It was on the Palatine that the Imperial Palace stood guard above the Forum, solid and secure as the Empire itself, where hundreds of civil servants busied themselves like bees in a hive to service the massive administration that was Rome.

And it was on the Palatine, in the very shadow of the Emperor’s private residence, that the Arch-Hawk of the Senate, Sextus Valerius Cotta, was putting the finishing touches to his speech.

Forty-two years old, lean as a tiger and with a thatch of hair the colour of ripe corn, Cotta cut a figure of envy among an Assembly who, for the most part, were strangers to a full head of hair and their back teeth. His military record was admirable, too, particularly that outstanding victory in Cisalpine Gaul when he was General, and materially he was up there with the best of them, as well. Prestigious address on the Palatine. Large estate in Frascati. Handsome wife who’d borne him four sons. (Not to mention Phyllis, the beautiful and undemanding mistress who had spurned a Consul in favour of Cotta’s protection.)

Tonight, though, he was in no mood for socializing and the door to his private office was locked. Crammed with antique furniture, its walls painted in rich, dark, military reds and smelling far too strongly of leather, the room appeared much smaller than it actually was. An effect exacerbated by an array of wall-mounted trophies in the form of antlers, tusks and animal heads, and a floor littered with the skins of various hunted beasts from panther to lion, which, with a bizarre sense of irony, now trapped the heat pumped out by the bronze brazier standing on a tripod in the centre of the office.


Stagnation, gentlemen, will be the ruin of Rome,’
he read aloud.

We should be thinking not of how best to employ Parian marble in our temples, but how best to employ the plunder of the Dacian goldmines
.’

Test the King of Dacia enough and he’ll eventually fall to Rome’s sword.

‘How best to maximize the potential of the shipping round the Black Sea.’

The Scythians can’t hold out for ever. They’d have to release their grip some time, why not sooner rather than later?

‘And finally, gentlemen, we must consider what treasures might await us, once we finish the job started by the Divine Julius and storm the white cliffs of Britannia in a properly organized military campaign.’

Cotta leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. None of these prizes were beyond Rome’s capabilities. Especially now that Augustus had reformed the army to comprise professionals on twenty-year contracts, rather than a bunch of raggle-taggle farmers who’d only sign up for a campaign provided it suited them. Cotta picked up his stylus.

‘With twenty-eight legions, seven hundred warships, superior cavalry and the best auxiliaries money can buy,’
he wrote,
‘the eagle’s shadow already soars over half the civilized world. All we need are another five, possibly six legions and Dacia is in our pocket, Scythia next, then the whole of the maritime trade round the Black Sea becomes ours.’

Fine for Augustus to stand up there and spout about how peace feeds the people, but son-of-a-bitch! Subduing Dacia, Britannia and Scythia would bring in a huge influx of slaves, working even more land, which would lead to even greater prosperity.

‘Arabia
,’
he scribbled,
‘would follow, our stepping stone to the treasures of the Orient
—’

He scrumpled the parchment and tossed it on to the floor. He was wasting his breath and he knew it. Hawks were as popular as the plague in the Senate these days. The Assembly shot them for sport.

Which was rich, coming from doves.

The trouble was, the governing classes had grown fat on Rome’s victories. Lazy as walruses, they had no desire to risk their own skins when they could be doing nothing. Tch! Cotta kicked the leg of his desk. There was no such thing as ‘doing’ ‘nothing’. Either one did something or one did not and if Rome was becoming complacent, you could bet your boots the enemy at the gate was not. Before you know it, that enemy will have patched up its differences with its neighbours to become a hundred-headed monster attacking from every direction, and then it’ll be too late for the eagle to start fighting back.

Expansion was the only way forward. Conquer the world, and you can be assured of exactly where your enemies are and what they are plotting.

Cotta pushed his chair back and rested his feet on the desk, crossing them at the ankles.

Their counter-argument was that long-term stability lay in consolidating the peace, as opposed to expanding the boundaries. Three generations of civil war had taken their toll, they argued. Neither Rome nor its citizens had the stomach for war, and more importantly nor did their neighbours, they said. A generation was growing up with sons burying their fathers, not the other way round, trade links had been forged and these had raised the living standards of the conquered nations to levels far above their expectations. Moreover, they insisted that many of the smaller tribes actually felt empowered by Rome’s military protection, rather than oppressed.

Fine. If Sextus Valerius Cotta couldn’t change the views of the Senate, then there was always the other option.

He would have to change those who sat in it.

‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t ever say you weren’t fucking warned.’

Seven

As another grey December dawn poked its way through the clouds, Marcus Cornelius Orbilio yawned, put out a hand and found a nipple. It was a very pretty nipple. Pink and perky. And it wasn’t one of his. Under his hand, the nipple began to stir. He opened his eyes and got another shock. This wasn’t his house. Hell, it wasn’t even a house. Just one cramped room, and instead of gazing upon porphyry inlaid with tortoiseshell and silver, at gilded stuccoed ceilings, water clocks and ivory statuettes, the furniture was functional and worn, the bed little more than a wooden shelf jointed to the wall, and if a chap wasn’t careful, he’d bang his head on the cooking stove when he rolled off.

From the flat next door, a baby howled and dogs barked in the yard. Footsteps stomped overhead, rattling the ladles which hung over the oven. Most depressing of all, though, in place of sturdy, draughtproof shutters, light from the single window was shut out by a sagging curtain which hung limply on a hook. But at least the curtain was clean, the floorboards scrubbed, the plaster on the walls spotless and the blanket covering him smelled of violets. At home his bedroom would be perfumed with aromatic herbs and resins. Here, the smell of stale cheap wine predominated. Overlaid with sex.

Under his hand, the nipple let out a girlish giggle. ‘Who’s woken up a naughty boy, then?’

Jupiter in heaven, please, who is she? Where was he? How had he ended up in this impoverished little bedsit? Orbilio tried to think, but was prevented by the relentless clack of castanets behind his eyes. Last night, last night. Where had he been? What was he doing? Dammit, never mind last night. This morning was troublesome enough. Croesus, not only did he have to contend with a perfect little breast swelling in his hand, there was a corresponding swelling in his groin. He groaned, which she mistook for pleasure and began feathering her fingertips lightly down his chest. Lower, lower, lower, until he had to push her hand away.

BOOK: Second Act
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